Friday, November 20, 2009
Into the Circle of Fear
If pedigree insured success, then the 1972-73 NBC anthology series Ghost Story / Circle of Fear would have enjoyed a long, prosperous run. With executive producer William Castle at the helm, co-developed by Richard Matheson, and featuring scripts from notables the likes of Robert Bloch, Henry Slesar and Jimmy Sangster, the series sure looked on paper like it would be a winner. After all, heartbroken horror fans were due an apology after the network's shabby treatment of the final, truncated season of Rod Serling's Night Gallery the year before.
The series was initially structured around snifter-toting host Sebastian Cabot, who, as proprietor of the imposing edifice Mansfield House, would present tales of the bizarre and supernatural, more often than not centering around the dead haunting the living. The reputation of all parties involved was able to coax some superlative talent to the screen - Jason Robards, Helen Hayes, Patricia Neal, Karen Black, Jodie Foster. Melvyn Douglas, among many others. But the show could stand as Exhibit A in the argument against the hour-long single-story format; most of the tales felt padded, the atmosphere of the uncanny dissipating long before the closing credits rolled. The first 14 anemically-rated episodes were telecast before Christmas of '72...and then came an intervention.
While America rang in a new year, Ghost Story rang out its title and host. Gone were Cabot and the Essex House framing device (which always struck me as an odd solution, as one of the standard knocks against anthology shows is the lack of continuing characters - was he unable to shake the Mr. French persona in the minds of viewers?), and in was the new title Circle of Fear, with a more in-your-face intro and a punchier theme from composer Billy Goldenberg. All other production credits remained the same, and the series managed another nine installments before NBC called it quits. (Ironically, this makeover was similar to the one that happened over at Night Gallery for its final season; however, that series took a turn for substandard scares more appropriate for a carnival funhouse - much to Serling's chagrin - whereas the changes that took place here were more cosmetic in nature.)
That's not to say that GS / CoF didn't have its moments: dead wife Stella Stevens terrorizing hubby Robards through his TV set in "The Dead We Leave Behind," the eerie cement block with the protruding harpoon in "The Concrete Captain," the titular moth that torments Janet Leigh in "Death's Head," and the haunted rocking horse discovered by Martin Sheen in "Dark Vengeance." But for me, the most consistently memorable installment was from a teleplay courtesy of Star Trek's D.C. Fontana and master fantasist Harlan Ellison first broadcast in January of '73. Every now and then I'll bump into someone who remembers the series, and the episode they'll bring up is "the one about the jars"...and then I know they saw "Earth, Air, Fire and Water," which explores that mysterious realm of the subconscious known only to those who create. Where does inspiration come from? And what happens when you really lose yourself in your work? (Night Gallery fans, look closely - you'll see artwork from Jaroslav Gebr, who painted the canvases for NG's pilot movie, as well as the paintings representing the Sixth Sense episodes that were stripped into the series when it entered syndication.)
I was delighted to be tooling around YouTube and discover the episode in its entirety. Unfortunately, the sound is very much out of synch; I hope it doesn't drive you mad, and you're able to compensate. Two of Ghost Story's episodes have found their way onto the recent collection of William Castle movies - and in pristine condition, I must say - so I'm hoping that the interest is sparked to re-master and release the entire 23 episode run of one of the greatest Woulda-Coulda-Shouldas in televised horror history.